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EMBL Forum Lectures

Prof. Markus Heinrichs, Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg

Thursday, 23 May at 11:00 in CNR seminar room, EMBL Monterotondo

Prof. Markus Heinrichs, Department of Psychology, Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg

Neurobiology of human prosocial behavior: Mechanisms and clinical implications


There is substantial evidence from animal research indicating a key role of the neuropeptides oxytocin (OT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) in the regulation of complex social cognition and behavior. Recent studies have investigated the effects of OXT and AVP on human social interaction, the genetic mechanisms of inter-individual variation in social neuropeptide signaling, and the actions of OT and AVP in the human brain as revealed by neuroimaging. These data have advanced our understanding of the mechanisms by which these neuropeptides contribute to human social behavior. OT and AVP are emerging as targets for novel treatment approaches – particularly in synergistic combination with psychotherapy – for mental disorders characterized by social dysfunction, such as autism, social anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. This talk focuses on our recent knowledge of the behavioral, endocrine, genetic, and neural effects of OT and AVP in humans and provides a synthesis of recent advances made in the effort to implicate the oxytocinergic system in the treatment of psychopathological states.


Professor Markus Heinrichs studied psychology at the University of Wurzburg and the University of Bonn and received his Ph.D. from the University of Trier (Germany). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Zurich (Switzerland), he was an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology at the University of Zurich. Since 2009, Markus Heinrichs has been Chair for Biological and Personality Psychology at the University of Freiburg (Germany). Since 2010, he has headed the Social Neuroscience research group at the Freiburg Brain Imaging Center and has directed the Outpatient Clinic for Stress-Related Disorders at the University of Freiburg. He has pioneered a new field, demonstrating that the neurohormone oxytocin is a key mediator in the regulation of complex human social cognition and behavior, as well as establishing oxytocin as a target for novel treatment approaches. He has received several international awards for his work (e.g., the Pfizer Research Prize in Medicine). Markus Heinrichs’ scientific interests include the psychoendocrinological, neural, and genetic bases of social interaction; stress- and anxiety-protective factors (e.g., oxytocin, social support, attachment); and research on the etiology, pathogenesis, and therapy of mental disorders involving social deficits (especially social phobia, borderline personality disorder, and autism).

Selected References

Chen, F. S., Kumsta, R., von Dawans, B., Monakhov, M., Ebstein, R. P. & Heinrichs, M. (2011). Common oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphism and social support interact to reduce stress in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 108, 19937-19942.

Heinrichs, M., von Dawans, B. & Domes, G. (2009). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and human social behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 30, 548-557.

Kumsta, R. & Heinrichs, M. (2013). Oxytocin, stress and social behavior: neurogenetics of the human oxytocin system. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, in press.

Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Domes, G., Kirsch., P. & Heinrichs, M. (2011). Oxytocin and vasopressin in the human brain: social neuropeptides for translational medicine. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12, 524-538.